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After a year and a half of deliberation, the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has approved the request by Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut to import five captive beluga whales from Marineland, an amusement park in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Mystic Aquarium wants the belugas for scientific research and says their efforts will aid in the management and conservation of the endangered wild belugas in Cook Inlet, Alaska, and the depleted stock from Russia’s Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River region. The five whales will join the three belugas already living at the aquarium.
NOAA’s issuing of the five-year permit comes with a number of key restrictions. The aquarium will be prohibited from: breeding the whales; using them in public interactive programs, such as photo opportunities; or training them for performance. Any decisions about transferring the animals to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta—a partner on the permit—will be made by NOAA at a later date. The Canadian government will also need to sign off on the plan before it can go ahead.
Mystic Aquarium’s controversial request, first made in March 2019, was initially met with strong pushback from the public, and from NGOs including the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). But Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with AWI, says NOAA’s restrictions have changed her mind. “We just thought it was going to be a binary decision—that they were going to issue the permit or not,” says Rose. “We’re actually pleasantly surprised, and we’re not going to oppose the permit.”
The permit restrictions help NOAA avoid a number of issues raised by scientists like Rose, members of the public, and the US Marine Mammal Commission. Much of the opposition stemmed from concerns about the captive belugas’ well-being, as well as worries about what their transfer would represent.
The five belugas under discussion were born in captivity, but they are descendants of the Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River population. Some critics expressed worries that the move would perpetuate demand for these whales by the international aquarium industry, or that the reproductive study proposed by Mystic Aquarium was an excuse to breed animals for public display.
The whales’ parentage matters because under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) marine mammals from depleted populations cannot be used solely for public display. Prior to NOAA’s decision, it was unclear if having only one parent* from a depleted stock meant that the offspring would also hold that designation. Brady O’Donnell, a communications and legislative affairs officer with the US Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), says that his department recommended NOAA “adopt a policy to resolve this issue.”
In this case, NOAA decided to treat all five whales as if they were from a depleted stock. According to Rose, that means that if these whales produce offspring—which should not happen because it’s a violation of the permit—they should also be treated as depleted, and could not legally be used for public display.
According to the MMC, the most troubling aspect of Mystic Aquarium’s proposal was that the aquarium intended to breed the whales. The MMC suggested that “if NMFS issues a permit, it include a condition to require Mystic or any other facility where the whales are housed to take steps to preclude breeding”—which it did. In accordance with NOAA’s restrictions, Mystic Aquarium must provide a contraception plan before it can import any of the whales.
However, what is not clear is what should happen in the case of an accidental pregnancy. Will the pregnancy be terminated? Will the offspring be transported and be put on public display? “No contraception is 100 percent effective,” says Rose, and that’s why she remains concerned, and why AWI will be following up with the agency for clarification on that matter.
In total, NOAA received more than 9,500 comments for and against the application. Kate Goggin, an NMFS spokesperson, said by email that the agency “carefully reviewed and considered all public comments related to this permit request and the best available information in making a decision to ensure that this permit meets the requirements of the MMPA and the agency’s implementing regulations.”
Randall Reeves, a marine mammal scientist and chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Cetacean Specialist Group, is happy with the outcome. “It’s great that the US has strong legislation and a competent regulatory system that requires such institutions to meet high standards of animal care, which extend to how decisions like this one are made,” he says. “In my personal view, Mystic Aquarium has established itself for decades as one of the best when it comes to integrating the multiple missions of raising awareness, educating, and facilitating scientific research.”
In the end, NOAA authorized seven of Mystic Aquarium’s eight proposed research projects, including developing methods for assessing the health and body condition of wild whales, studying how human activity is affecting their hearing and immune system, and researching their diving physiology. NOAA did not authorize the study related to reproduction, deeming it unnecessary for the conservation of endangered and depleted populations.
*Correction: This originally read: “Prior to NOAA’s decision, it was unclear if having parents from a depleted stock…” The line was updated to clarify that the uncertainty arose when only one of the whale’s parents was from the depleted stock, as is the case for some of these belugas. When both of the whale’s parents are from the depleted stock, the offspring are also considered to be from that stock.